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For a new translation by Mickey Flacks of Morris Rosenfeld’s Yiddish poem about the Triangle Fire, “The Crimson Terror,” click here.

Chalking Back Through Time: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

by Elissa Sampson

Crossing the threshold to leave my building on a bleary March 25th morning, I felt that I had been suddenly pulled back from New York’s Lower East Side of 2004 to a time and a space transformed by the demands of the dead. Chalked onto the sidewalk, and literally brought home to me, were the name, address, and age of someone who until that moment, had been an anonymous victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which claimed 146 lives in 1911. She lived where I lived, although the address didn’t exactly match mine; her building had been torn down when my building went up in 1929. But she could have been from my family or from the towns that they left behind, since, like many others, my relatives had come from Galicia to live in the Lower East Side’s tenements and work in its sweatshops. It could have been the name of the mother of my elderly next-door neighbor; instead, her mother had escaped due to her newsboy boyfriend running to the tenth floor to take her out in the nick of time.

A sobering tale that I already knew had, in a glance, flipped from abstract information to the living legacy of a person who had died for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve come to realize that those scrawled words, which now appear for one day each year outside my door, have made an even more immediate claim. By recalling the story and anonymously investing me in its retelling, as in Passover’s reenactment, they have made me the fire’s heir. It could have been me. I, too, was brought out of Egypt — and out of the sweatshops.

Chalking of this sort almost dares remembrance to happen, given the sheer ephemerality of its hold on our built environment. The transient nature of chalking is evocative of theease with which lives were wiped out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in a matter of minutes. Literally here today and gone tomorrow, it teases memory to work once its reminder disappears; at best it is a temporary intrusion, an interruption of memoralization into daily life. By providing an address, it implicitly raises the question of address and to whom it is addressed. By focusing on multiple sites and the individual names associated with those sites, the chalking literally brings home the power of an aggregation of individual voices marking a tragedy at the multiple places of entry to which they were connected. This is very different than having a number of people make midday speeches at the site of the fire — which is now a New York University building.

In this chain of retelling, the tale is never finished and each voice, including mine, starts the tale anew.

My sidewalk had been chalked by a small group of labor, student and other activists looking to commemorate the dead by spreading their message throughout the city, but most particularly in the Lower East Side, where the vast majority of the victims resided. The project was started in 2004 by Ruth Sergel, who stated to the Jewish Week, “The chalk always washes away… We’ll always come back next year… That’s what social justice and memory is all about. It’s not like it’s ever over.”

Historically a poor area, the Lower East Side was home at some point to two million immigrants who lived there, if only temporarily. In 1911 it included seven hundred and fifty thousand Jews, living in a neighborhood that had the world’s highest population density per capita. The fire still lives on in the neighborhood’s social memory as critical to its immigrant narratives. For Jews and Italians, it marked the entrenchment of labor politics, since the sweatshops remained critical to their economic sustenance.

Although multiple commemorations took place in the immediate wake of the disaster, it increasingly feels inadequately commemorated today, given the freshness of the lessons it continues to impart. Caused by human greed and stupidity, the fire was a heartbreaking tragedy whose victims were primarily women and children. It left families and communities devastated, but it also galvanized public opinion and brought major social action and legal redress in its wake, not the least concerning corruption. The Triangle Fire factory had passed inspection in 1910; the greed that caused these deaths — with the ninth floor fire doors of the factory locked to prevent pilferage — was well documented by official commissions.

The neighborhood, whose residents still earn half the average income of New York City, has been gentrifying, with rapid changes to the built environment. The chalkings serve to reconnect the neighborhood to its origins, if only for a day. Given that NYU, with its towering, out-of-context dorms, is one of the main forces changing the Lower East Side into a nightlife playground, there is a certain irony that this graphic reminder of the neighborhood’s sweatshop origins comes by way of the Triangle (Asch) Building, which has served from 1929 as an NYU science building.

The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 2003 report on the building [PDF] states “After the fire, the building was repaired and returned to industrial use. In 1916, New York University leased the eighth floor and eventually occupied the entire building. The building was donated to the university in 1929 by Frederick Brown and has been used continuously as an academic building.”

Geographer Kenneth Foote calls this “rectification,” the restamping of a site into another mold, which he describes as “the most common outcome when tragedies come to be viewed as accidents and when violence is interpreted as senseless.” Foote notes that the intent of such a transformation is to render a site immaterial to debates about a tragic event’s meaning and commemoration. This may well have depicted NYU’s initial stance concerning the building’s meaning, but NYU has subsequently supported the recent New York City landmark process for its building and allowed the visual acknowledgement of the Fire through the affixing of two small brass plaques, one from the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Makers Union), and the other from the National Park. Still, despite the communal loss for the Lower East Side, the Jewish and Italian communities, and labor as a whole, what Foote describes as “sanctification,” in which a visible memorial is inscribed in the landscape to reflect a lasting, positive meaning, has not yet happened. The move to the sacral, Foote says, often waits until a site’s negative associations with tragedy and violence are outweighed by “positive” associations such as a community’s coming together to mourn or take action. Perhaps the vast number of commemorations in New York next week, to mark the 100th anniversary of the fire, will create that shift at last.

The loss of 146 lives at the Triangle Company took place in less than 20 minutes. Many of the workers jumped from the locked ninth floor after the elevator failed due to the weight of those escaping the eighth floor. Those on the tenth floor mostly made it out to the roof. The owners, Harris and Blank were indicted for manslaughter but never convicted since, despite testimony to the contrary, the jury did not believe that the owners knew that the ninth floor door was locked. Three years later, the only compensation received was for 23 families who settled in civil court for $75 per victim.

Adding to the public sentiment that this tragedy was both preventable and predictable were the events of 1909, when a young Yiddish-speaking immigrant named Clara Lemlich fought Samuel Gompers to show that women could lead a strike and have the stamina to stick with it. The motto of what became known as “The Uprising of 20,000” was “Better to Die Fast than Starve Slow.” The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one of the strike’s first targets, and the strike then spread throughout the industry, including to Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Buoyed by public support, particularly from the upper-class Women’s Trade Union League, which bailed strikers out of prison  — there were seven hundred arrests and thirteen weeks of no pay — the strikers reached agreements with 75 percent of the shops for better wages and working conditions before the strike fizzled out. A year later, the Uprising inspired the sixty thousand men of the Cloak-makers Union to call a general strike. But the largest ladies garments sweatshop, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which made women’s blouses, had not agreed in 1909 to improve working conditions.

Gender was key to the organization of the garment trade and its unions, with lower-paid women (often greenhorns) working primarily in the ladies garment trade which allowed for the rise of a select number of women labor leaders in the ladies garment unions. Men worked as higher paid laborers in both men’s and ladies’ garments, e.g., as pressers, and dominated the labor movement. Gender also played a major role in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire. Women and children were often the focus of labor reform and seen as representing the most vulnerable in the sweatshops and factories.  After the fire, Fire Chief Croker issued a statement urging “girls employed in lofts and factories to refuse to work when they find [potential escape] doors locked.” At Cooper Union, a banner stretching across the platform said: “Locked doors, overcrowding, inadequate fire escapes….We demand for all women the right to protect themselves.”

With over 100,000 mourners marching at the funeral for the seven unclaimed bodies, the fire remained in the public eye as an indictment to what had previously been viewed as a well-known fact of life. Even Tammany Hall paid attention. A nine-member NY State Factory Investigating Commission headed by Al Smith was appointed to investigate and instigate change in the state’s labor laws and building code, ushering in what has been called the ‘Golden Era of Remedial Factory Legislation.’ The Commission visited sweatshops and held public hearings that mesmerized New York, proposing over fifty pieces of legislation, of which thirty-six were passed. The chief investigator was Frances Perkins, who was an eyewitness to the fire.

After serving as FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the nation’s first female cabinet member, Perkins gave a speech on the Triangle Fire’s 50th anniversary in which she explained the legislation by stating, “We all felt that we had been wrong, that something was wrong with that building which we had accepted or the tragedy never would have happened. Moved by this sense of stricken guilt, we banded ourselves together to find a way by law to prevent this kind of disaster.” Perkins was also explicit in looking at the impact of the Fire on national legislation by stating that the New Deal began on March 25, 1911.

The citywide day of mourning called for by the ILGWU happened in 1911. Those laws passed in the first three years after the fire are still on the books. For many years, garment trade labor union commemorations of the survivors and victims were in order. Tammany Hall, until then a primarily Irish affair, extended the reach of its Lower East Side Fourth Ward organization to include Jewish and Italian voters as it made its peace with labor and the Reform movement on factory issues.

On the Triangle Fire’s 50th anniversary, the ILGWU and the NYC Fire Department obtained permission to stage an annual commemoration at the building site. Fire survivors play a part in the ceremony, as did Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins. The ILGWU also put up a plaque just above street level which stated “out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.”

The chalking started by Ruth Sergel has morphed into the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, which also honors the victims with associated commemorative activities that bring their legacy into view, including an annual program at the local activist Judson Memorial Church. Social memory has certainly lived on in the ethnic communities associated with the tragedy. Sergel stated in an interview in the Jewish Week that “as a Jewish New Yorker you just grew up with stories of the Triangle Fire. I’ve always been haunted by it.” The Coalition, now a more official affair with representation that includes city historic organizations, was started in 2009. Its goals include establishing a permanent memorial, and it has started fundraising and commissioned a sculptor to create one. The Coalition now includes anti-sweatshop organizations, some of which have taken the Triangle Fire theme as a focal point for a “No More Fires” campaign to support garment trade organizers in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

As the 100th anniversary arrives, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition is looking for renewed activist engagement in an age in which global and local sweatshop are common. The creation of a “living legacy” of social conscience is combined with the desire for permanent memorialization for those whose death is a testament to the consequences of employer greed. Foote notes that “memory provides an important bond between culture and landscape, because human modifications of the environment are often related to the way societies wish to sustain and efface memories.” His stress on landscape “as a durable, visual representation” makes the Coalition’s goal of a permanent memorial understandable, even if it is the performative, rupturing, aspects of chalking that create the most visceral impact. The lack of permanent memoralization is becoming increasingly salient to the victims’ virtual heirs in the ethnic, labor, immigrant, fire-fighters, building and industrial safety, historic preservationist, and feminist communities — while 9/11 and the pending centennial of the fire have brought these issues to the fore.

 

Further Reading:

  • Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, David von Drehle. Grove Press, New York. 2004.
  • Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscape of Violence and Tragedy, Kevin Foote. University of Texas Press, Austin. 1997.
  • Theresa Serber Malkiel, The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker: A Story Of The Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike in New York, The Co-Operative Press, New York. 1910.
  • The Triangle Fire, Leon Stein. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. 1961, reissued 2001.
  • The New York Landmarks Coalition Report [PDF], Designation List 346, LP-2128. March 25, 2003.

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Elissa Sampson has extensive knowledge of the history of the synagogues and other Jewish institutions of New York’s Lower East Side. With her husband, Jonathan Boyarin, a well-known Jewish anthropologist and ethnographer, she has raised their children to love the Lower East Side and its traditions. Sampson has helped design tours for the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy and was active in the restoration of the historic Stanton Street Synagogue.